Wells Cathedral Wells, England

Dating from 1239, Wells Cathedral features an extra-wide west front covered in medieval sculptures and unique scissor arches supporting the tower inside.

West Front (1239)
Holly Hayes All Images »

Facts & Stats

Best Known As
Wells Cathedral
Full Name
Wells Cathedral
Also Known As
Cathedral Church of St Andrew and Chapter House and Cloisters
Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Wells
51.210217° N, 2.643585° W  (map)

Contact Info

Cathedral Green
01749 674483


Listed Building Description


ST5445 CATHEDRAL GREEN 662-1/7/32 (East side) 12/11/53 Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Chapter House and Cloisters


Cathedral Bishopric established in 909. Saxon cathedral built, nothing now visible (excavations 1978/79). See transferred to Bath in 1090. Church extended and altered in 1140, in Norman style, under Bishop Robert Lewes; part of this lies under south transept of the present church. Present church begun, at east end, in 1176 and continued to consecration in 1239, but with substantial interruption from 1190-1206. Designer ADAM LOCK, west front probably by THOMAS NORREYS. Nave, west front (but not towers), north porch, transepts, and part of choir date from this phase. Bishopric becomes Bath and Wells in 1218. Central tower begun 1315, completed 1322. Designer THOMAS WITNEY Lady Chapel begun 1323, completed c1326. Probably by THOMAS WITNEY. At this stage the Chapel a free-standing structure to the east of the original (1176) east end. Extension of choir and presbytery in 1330 to connect with the new Lady Chapel. Designer THOMAS WITNEY, but presbytery vaults by WILLIAM JOY. Following signs of dangerous settlement and cracking under the new tower, the great arches and other work inserted to prevent collapse in 1337; designer WILLIAM JOY. (The St Andrew's arches known as strainer arches). South-west tower begun in 1385 to design of WILLIAM WYNFORD, completed c1395. North-west tower built 1410. Tracery added to nave windows in 1410. Central tower damaged by fire in 1439; repair and substantial design modification (designer not known) completed c1450. Stillington's chapel built 1477, (off east cloister) designer WILLIAM SMYTH, who also designed the fan vault to the main crossing. The chapel was demolished in 1552.

MATERIALS: Doulting ashlar with blue Lias dressings, partly replaced by Kilkenny marble, some Purbeck marble internal dressings, and pink rubble outer cloister walls.

PLAN: Cruciform plan with aisled nave and transepts, N porch, cruciform aisled chancel with transeptal chapels and retrocuire. E Lady Chapel, NE Chapter House (see item 33) NE Chapter House and S cloister (see item 34).

EXTERIOR: Early English Gothic style, Decorated Gothic style Chapter House, Retroquire and Lady Chapel, Perpendicular Gothic style W and crossing towers and cloister. Early English windows throughout, mainly filled with 2-light tracery c1415, with a parapet of cusped triangles added c1320 to all but the Chapter House and W front. 5-sided Lady Chapel has angle buttresses, drip and a parapet of cusped triangles, with wide 5-light windows with reticulated tracery of cusped spheroid triangles; a late C14 flying buttress with a square pinnacle to the SE. N chancel aisles: the E bay has a shallow 2-centre arched 5-light window with Decorated tracery, steeper 3-light windows to the W bays, the transept chapel window of 4-lights with reticulated tracery. The early C14 E end of the chancel has flying buttresses to the gable and 3 E bays; the E end has a 5-light window with Decorated tracery, including 2 mullions up to the soffit, and a raised surround beneath a shallow canted parapet, with the coped gable set back and lit by 4 lozenge windows divided by a wide Y-shaped mullion; the N clerestory windows of 3-lights, the 3 to the E have ogee hoods, the 3 late C12 W and 2 N transept windows linked by a continuous hood mould. For Chapter House-see below. N transept and nave aisles have a plinth, sill band, corbel table and parapet, with wide buttresses separating aisle lancet windows with inserted early C15 2-light Perpendicular tracery, and a clerestory with similar moulding and fenestration. Transept gable in 3 stages, with clasping buttress turrets and sill bands: 3 lower-stage windows and one to the end of W aisle, middle stage has a blind arcade of 6 lancets, the middle 4 truncated beneath 3 tall stepped lancets to upper stage, with similar blind panels paired to the turrets, and medallions to the spandrels; a weathered band beneath an arcade of stepped blind lancets, and panelled turret pinnacles with octagonal caps, a third to the flanking aisle; the right-hand turret has a good c1475 clock with paired soldiers above striking 2 bells, and a crenellated canopy. 9-bay nave aisle, 10-bay clerestory, of which the 2 windows flanking the transept re-entrant cut off above a mid C14 relieving arch. Fine N porch 2 bays deep with blue Lias shafts and C18 outer doors: entrance archway of 5 orders with alternate paired banded columns with stiff leaf capitals to the W, carved showing the martyrdom of King Edmund to the E, and a roll-moulded arch, including 2 orders of undercut chevron mouldings with filigree decoration over fine doors of c1200; clasping buttresses with octagonal pinnacles as the transept, and a gable with 6 stepped lancets beneath 3 stepped parvise lancets with sunken panels in the spandrels. Inside of 2 bays, articulated by banded vault shafts with stiff leaf capitals to a sexpartite vault; side benches are backed by arcades of 4 bayed seats with stiff leaf spandrels, beneath a string bitten off at the ends by serpents; a deeply recessed upper arcade of 3 arches to a bay, with complex openwork roll mouldings intersecting above the capitals, on coupled shafts free standing in front of attached shafts, enriched spandrels, and openwork Y-tracery in the tympanum beneath the vault. The S end decorated after the front entrance, including a moulded arch with a chevron order, and containing a pair of arched doorways with a deeply-moulded trumeau and good panelled early C13 doors with C15 Perpendicular tracery panels. S elevation is similar: the chancel wall of the 1340 extension is recessed for the 3 E bays with flying buttresses, the windows to the W have uncusped intersecting tracery. Crossing tower has a c1200 blind arcade to a string level with the roof ridge; upper section 1313, remodelled c1440, has ribbed clasping buttresses to gabled niches with figures and pinnacles with sub-pinnacles; each side of 3 bays separated by narrow buttresses with pinnacles, a recessed transom with openwork tracery beneath and louvred trefoil-headed windows above, gabled hoods and finials. Corbels within for a spire, destroyed 1439. W front screen is a double square in width, divided into 5 bays by very deep buttresses, with the wider nave bay set forward. The towers stand outside the aisles, the design of the front continued round both ends and returned at the rear. Statues of c1230-1250, to an uncertain iconographic scheme. Divided vertically into 3 bands, beneath a central nave gable and Perpendicular towers; arches with originally blue Lias shafts, now mostly Kilkenny marble, and stiff leaf capitals. A tall, weathered plinth, with a central nave entrance of 4 orders with paired doorways and quatrefoil in the tympanum containing the seated Virgin with flanking angels, and smaller aisle entrances of 2 orders. Above is an arcade of gabled hoods over arches, containing paired trefoil-headed statue niches with bases and 15 surviving figures; 2-light Perpendicular tracery windows between the buttresses outside the nave; sunken quatrefoils in the spandrels, which cut across the corners of the buttresses. The third and principal band contains 3 tall, slightly stepped nave lancets, paired blind lancets between the outer buttresses, with narrower arches flanking them and to the faces and sides of the buttresses, all with banded Lias shafts and roll-moulded heads; the 3 arches to the sides and angled faces on the SW and NW corners have intersecting mouldings as in the N porch. All except the window arches contain 2 tiers of gabled statue niches with figures, taller ones in the upper tier, and across the top is an arcade of trefoil-headed statue niches with seated figures and carved spandrels. The nave buttresses have gabled tops containing cinquefoil-arched niches, and tall pinnacles with arched faces and conical tops; above the nave is a 3-tier stepped gable with a lower arcade of 10 cinquefoil-arched niches containing seated figures, a taller arcade of 12 niches with c1400 figures of the Apostles, and a central top section with outer trefoil arches, corner sunken quatrefoils; the central oval recess with cusped sides and top contains a 1985 figure of Christ in Judgement beneath a pinnacle, with crosses and finials on the weathered coping. The Perpendicular towers continue the buttresses up with canopied statue niches to their faces and blank panelling to the sides, before raking them back into deep angle buttresses; between are a pair of 2-light W windows, louvred above a transom and blind below, with a blind arcade above the windows, and a low crenellated coping.

INTERIOR: Lady Chapel: An elongated octagon in plan, with triple vault shafts with spherical foliate capitals to a tierceron vault forming a pattern of concentric stars, with spherical bosses and a paint scheme of 1845; the 3 W arches with Purbeck marble shafts onto the Retroquire have blind arched panels above; beneath the windows is a sill mould with fleurons, and a bench round the walls. Stone reredos has 6 statue niches with crocketed canopies and smaller niches in between, with 4 C19 sedilia with ogee-arched and crocketed canopies and a C14 cusped ogee trefoil-arched S doorway; C19 encaustic tiles. The Retroquire extends laterally into E chapels each side and transeptal chapels: all with ogee-arched piscinae with crockets and finials, with a complex asymmetrical lierne vault on Purbeck marble shafts and capitals. The 3 E bays of the choir added early C14, and the high lierne vault of squares extended back over the 3 late C12 W bays, on triple vault shafts, Purbeck marble with roll-moulded capitals for the c14 and limestone with stiff leaf capitals for the C12; above the 2-centre aisle arches and below the clerestory walk is a richly-carved openwork grille of statue niches with canopies, containing 8 early C20 figures across the E end; clerestory walk has ogee-arched doorways. Rich canopies over choir stalls on Purbeck marble shafts, and 5 sedilia with enriched canopies. Ogee-arched doorways with crockets and pinnacles each side of the choir give onto the aisles, which have lierne vaults forming hexagons. Transepts: 3 bays deep and 3 wide, with cluster columns and stiff leaf capitals, including some fine figure carving in the SW aisle, paired triforium arches between the vault shafts; the chancel aisles entered by C14 ogee-arched doorways with cinquefoil cusps and openwork panels each side; the N transept has a doorway from the E aisle with a depressed arch and moulded sides with a panelled Perpendicular ridge door, and Perpendicular panelled stone screens across the arcade; the S transept has an early C14 reredos with cusped ogee arches. The openings to the crossing contain inserted cross ogee strainer arches with triple chamfered moulding, on the W one an early C20 raised crucifix and flanking figures on shafted bases, and the roof has late C15 fan vaulting with mouchettes to the springers. Nave: 10-bay nave has compound columns of eight shafts with stiff leaf capitals enriched with figures, a continuous hood mould, with carved stops until the 4 W bays, which also have more richly-carved stiff leaf; a continuous triforium arcade of roll-moulded lancets with moulded rere arches, 3 to each bay, with enriched tympana and paterae in the spandrels above, carved corbels and springers to vault shafts above to a quadripartite vault without ridges; vault painted to a scheme of 1844. A panelled c1450 gallery in the S clerestory window 6 from the W; aisles vaulted as nave, with enriched stiff leaf corbels. The W end has a trefoil-headed blank arcade on blue Lias shafts and a central stilted depressed-arch doorway, beneath the 3 W windows; the aisles end with a lateral rib from the vault to the W arcade. Chapels beneath the towers have sexpartite vaults with an enriched hole for the bell ropes; the SW chapel has a shallow arch to the cloister beneath 3 cusped arched panels. The parvise over the N chapel contains a rare drawing floor. 2 chantry chapels set between the E nave piers have fine openwork Perpendicular tracery and cresting, the S chapel of St Edmund c1490 has a fan-vaulted canopy over the altar and 2 statue niches with canopies, and an ogee-arched doorway, the N Holy Cross chapel c1420 has quatrefoil panelling to the E canopy, distressed statue niches, and 4-centre arched doorways.

FITTINGS: Lady Chapel: Brass lectern 1661 has a moulded stand and foliate crest. Retroquire, NE chapel: fine oak C13 Cope Chest with a 2-leaf top doors; panelled C17/C18 chest; N transept chapel: C17 oak screen with columns, formerly part of cow stalls, with artisan Ionic capitals and cornice, set forward over chest tomb of John Godilee; C14 floor tiles; SE chapel: Bound oak C14 chest for Chapter Seal. N transept: Very fine c1390 clock, considered the second oldest in the world after Salisbury Cathedral (qv), the face with heavenly bodies represented and 4 knights riding round above, and a quarter jack in the corner striking bells with a hammer and his heels; pine chest with bowed top. Choir: Very fine stalls with misericords, c1335; Bishop's Throne, c1340, restored by Salvin c1850, wide with panelled, canted front and stone doorway, deep nodding cusped ogee canopy over, with 3 stepped statue niches and pinnacles; C19 pulpit opposite, octagonal on a coved base with panelled sides, and steps up from the N aisle; organ within the chancel arch rebuilt and new case 1974. S transept: Round font from the former Saxon cathedral, wit an arcade of round-headed arches, on a round plinth, with a c1635 cover with heads of putti round sides. Nave: Pulpit and tomb of William Knight, mid C16, built out from the Sugar chantry, with panelled buttresses, curved sides and a cornice. Library: Good shelves and desks with panelled ends, cornices and scroll crests, and benches with ogee ends with ball finials of 1686.

MONUMENTS: Quire Corpus Christi N transept chapel: marble chest tomb of Robert Creyghton d.1672, an alabaster effigy on a sarcophagus with bowed sides; chest tomb of John Middleton, d c1350, effigy set beneath the window; chest tomb of John Middleton, d c1350, effigy set beneath the window; chest tomb of John Godelee, d.1333, effigy on a chest with open ogee arcade. N Quire aisle: chest tombs of Bishop Giso, d.1088, Ralph of Salisby, d.1463, alabaster, and 2 further c1230 effigies of Saxon Bishops, on mid C20 plinths; panelled chest tomb with 3 heraldic panels and moulded top; SE Chapel of St John the Baptist: chest tomb encloses N side, with arcaded sides, thin mullions to a good openwork top with cusped gables and a canopy to E end. St Katherine's transept chapel: Chest tomb of John Drokensford, d.1329, a painted effigy on a chest with open ogee arcade, as that for John Godelee; chest tomb of John Gunthorpe, d.1498 with 5 heraldic panels and moulded top. S chancel aisle: effigy of John Bernard, d.1459 on a mid C20 plinth; fine chest tomb of Bishop Bekynton, d.1464 but made c1450, a cadaver within the open lower section with enriched shafts and angel capitals, with a painted marble figure on top, surrounded by a fine C15 wrought-iron screen with buttress stanchions; raised, incised coffin slab of Bishop Bytton d.1274, blue Lias; large chest tomb of Bishop Harvey d.1894 with 5 trefoil panels and an effigy with putti to the head; 3 c1230 effigies of Saxon Bishops on mid C20 plinths; chest tomb of Bishop Harewell d.1386, a marble effigy on a C20 plinth. N transept, E aisle: Enriched marble chest tomb of John Still d.1607 with black Corinthian columns to entablature, sarcophagus with alabaster effigy; chest tomb to Bishop Kidder, d.1703 marble with an enriched naturalistic reclining figure of his daughter in front of 2 urns of her parents. S transept: Chapel of St Calixtus, fine un-named chest tomb of c1450, with carved alabaster panels and effigy; Chapel of St Martin, chest tomb of William Bykonyll c1448 with an arcaded front, cusped shallow arch over the effigy, panelled ceiling and a rich crested top; C15 wrought-iron gates to both chapels; in the S wall, good monument to Bishop William de Marchia, d.1302, 3 cusped cinquefoil-headed arches on moulded shafts, ogee hoods and pinnacles to a crenellated top, with an effigy within, with a 3-bay segmental vaulted canopy, and decorated with 6 carved heads beneath.

STAINED GLASS: Original early glass is mainly in the choir and Lady Chapel; the Parliamentarians caused extensive damage generally in August 1642 and May 1643. Earliest fragments are in 2 windows on the west side of the Chapter House staircase (c1280-90), and in two windows in the S choir aisle (c1310-20), but of principal interest is the Lady Chapel range, c1325-30, the east window including extensive repairs by Willement, 1845, and the others with substantial complete canopy-work, otherwise much in fragments. The choir E window is a fine Jesse Tree, including much silver stain, flanked by 2 windows each side in the clerestory, with large figures of saints, all these of c1340-45; a further window each side is late C19. The chapel of St Katherine has interesting panels of c1520, attributed to Arnold of Nijmegen; these, in the S and E windows were acquired from the destroyed church of St John, Rouen, the last panel was bought in 1953. The large triple lancet to the nave W end was glazed at the expense of Dean Creyghton at a cost of »140 in c1664: repaired in 1813, but the central light largely replaced to a design by A K Nicholson between 1925-31. The main N and S transept end windows are by Powell, 1903-05, and the nave S aisle has four paired lights of 1881-1904, with a similar window at the W end of each aisle. (Full details, to a numbered window sequence, in Colchester L S: Stained Glass in Wells Cathedral: 1952 etc).

Wells and Glastonbury

Saturday we went for another driving day trip. This time we headed to Somerset, south of Bath to Wells and Glastonbury.

The drive there was quite pleasant until we encountered terrible traffic in Bath. After crawling into town at about 5 mph and then taking 15 minutes to go around a single roundabout, we had to stop for a bathroom break. The honor went to the Bath Cricket Club, where we also watched a cricket game for a little bit.

Then it was onto Wells, our main destination for the day. Wells is a small city that is named for the natural wells that provide a year-round supply of fresh water. It has a huge and wonderful cathedral, which I'd learned about while researching for my website, as well as a bishop's palace complete with a moat.

We stopped at the bishop's palace first, as it had quite an inviting castle-like gateway. The moat was really neat, and the whole thing was very castle-like. Sadly, the inside was closed for the day due to a wedding. But we looked in the courtyard and hung around near the entrance for a bit, watching guests arrive in their wonderful British hats and nice clothes.

The man working at the gate asked where we were from, and looked surprised when David said Portland. It turns out he had lived in Florence (Oregon) for 10 years and went to the University of Oregon! He married an American around that time, whom it turns out we had passed playing the harp on the lawn outside the palace. A few weeks ago, they moved into a room above the gate to the bishop's palace! Nice.

We had a nice chat, and he brightened up even more when he heard I was studying ancient Christianity. He told us all about why he thinks the legends connecting Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail with Glastonbury are plausible. The best part of all is that he gave us his phone number and said that when we come back to Wells to see the bishop's palace, he'll have us over for tea and show us the parts of the palace the public doesn't get to see! Wahoo!

Then we headed to Wells Cathedral, which was built 1180-1239. It is unique in that it has an exceptionally wide west front that is covered with "one of the largest galleries of medieval sculpture in the world." It has rather squat towers with no spires, which is also unique.

From bottom to top, the sculptures are of biblical scenes, kings, bishops, angels, the 12 apostles, and Christ. The guy holding the "X" is St. Andrew, the very first of the 12 disciples and brother of Peter, who tradition says was martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross. He is patron saint of the city of Wells and of the cathedral. On either side of Christ are angels - doesn't it look like they're wearing bananas?

But the main draw is the interior, where the whole thing is held up by "scissor arches," an architectural feature found nowhere else. It's easy to see how they got their name. I had seen lots of photos of those arches and was so excited to see them in person. They didn't disappoint!

They look Art Deco and modern to me, but they're actually medieval - built in 1338-48 to help support the sinking tower. People apparently love them or hate them - my book on English cathedral architecture hates them and says "effort must be made to think them away." I think they are fantastic.

The rest of the cathedral was nice too, with lots of interesting things to look at. There was a medieval clock that still showed the sun going around the earth (the Jesus sculpture is modern; the guy sitting nearby kicks his legs on on the hour), and a very old baptismal font that is the only surviving part of the original cathedral (700s).

David took a photo of a sculptured angel's face that I think is a real award-winner (see below). The closeup of the painted stone is my artsy shot (I love old paint) - note the interesting black shape that looks a lot like a person! The choir was unusually colorful, in that all the seats have embroidered cushions (from the 1950s).

There were plenty of tombs of important people, including this interesting two-tiered tomb of a bishop, with the traditional effigy on top and a more realistic representation of the tomb's contents below:

In the back of the cathedral, some well-worn stairs (below) led to the chapter house, where the cathedral canons still meet to discuss cathedral business. It's a small octagonal room decorated with some funny faces similar to the Temple Church in London.

Behind the cathedral were some nice cloisters, with gravestones and St. Andrew's Well. In the yard was a very cute and strange orange cat, who was so intent on his nap that he didn't open his eyes or move even when I petted him. (But he was warm, so that's good.)

Next we drove to Glastonbury, which is only about 10 miles further south from Wells. Glastonbury is famous as a pilgrimage site for medieval Christians and modern New Agers, and the burial place of King Arthur. Arthur's tomb was conveniently discovered here in the Middle Ages when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey needed money for rebuilding. Today, the whole place is very New Age and Neopagan, with lots of dreadlocks, long skirts, and shops with books on "magick."

Our first stop was Glastonbury Tor, a small hill that has reportedly been sacred for 10,000 years. On top of the hill is a tower, which is all that remains of a 14th-century abbey church. The last abbot of that church was hanged here at the Reformation! The hill wasn't too hard to hike, and there were really great views in every direction from the top.

After the Tor, we headed for the main attraction, Glastonbury Abbey. In additon to its Arthurian connections, it's a very pretty ruined abbey and we were excited to check it out. But it was closed! We were just about a half-hour too late. We were so disappointed, especially since it had now gotten beautifully sunny and we could tantalizingly see some of it over the wall. Oh well, we'll have to come back another day.

By now it was about 6:00, and we started the drive home, by a different route than we came. We soon ran into trouble, as the road was closed that we needed to get to the motorway. But David and Wilma found an alternative route, using some very rural single-track roads. It was great fun.

When we were turning around in the middle of nowhere, we came across a castle! We parked and wandered in to check it out. Outside, right next to the road, was a peahen (lady peacock) pecking around. She was really funny looking, but probably thought the same about us!

Inside the castle gates, we wandered around alone, not sure if it was public or private, and found a beautiful peacock. Those tailfeathers were really something to see up close, especially perched on a castle tower!

We eventually came across a woman who told us it was a private residence but also a B&B and restaurant. She said it's not as old as it looks - only a "Victorian folly."

On our route back to Oxford, we passed through a city called Cheltenham. We had seen it on the map but never knew it was anything worth visiting. We really liked what we saw as we drove through! We saw nice restaurants, pretty architecture, and fancy shopping. I looked it up in my Lonely Planet guide, and we learned that it is actually a hot-springs spa town that was a major rival to Bath in the 1800s, and it indeed has great shopping and gourmet restaurants. It's only about 40 miles from home on a major highway, so we look forward to returning.

Further Resources

  1. The National Heritage List for England: 1382901, /resultsingle.aspx?uid=1382901. Historic England.
  2. Official Website of Wells Cathedral. Official source.